DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (July 24, 2003) - NASCAR fans and industry insiders looking for a glimpse of the sport ' s future may just get their wish, when the best of NASCAR ' s regional racing stars converge on Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway for the inaugural Toyota All-Star Showdown, Nov. 6-8. This invitation-only event will bring together the top drivers in NASCAR ' s Elite (Featherlite Southwest, International Truck and Engine Corporation Midwest, Kodak Southeast and Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series) and Grand National (Busch North and Winston West) divisions. SPEED Channel will provide live national television coverage on Nov. 8. For many of the regional touring drivers who will participate in this event, advancing their careers to one of NASCAR ' s three national series - the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, NASCAR Busch Series or NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series - is a top priority. Many drivers who have already worked their way through these regional ranks know firsthand how important this exposure can be.
" It sounds like a wonderful opportunity, particularly for the younger drivers that have ambitions of being a Busch Series racer or even, hopefully, a Winston Cup racer at some point, " said Ricky Craven (No. 32 Tide Pontiac), a New England native who competed in the Busch North Series from 1989-91. " The opportunity to race in that type of environment, an All-Star race which is nationally-televised with a very legitimate purse, it sounds like a wonderful opportunity and I wish it had existed 12 years ago. " Craven, a two-time winner on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, says his years in the Busch North Series helped him become the driver he is today.
" I have wonderful memories of the two years I ran Busch North, and consider NASCAR ' s system as being a big reason why, as a Maine native, I was given the opportunity to race in Winston Cup. That system works. That system is solid and this event is just another example of how they continue to mold and shape a league, or system, that allows drivers to continue to progress. "
Including Craven, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series garage is full of drivers and crew members who started out in NASCAR ' s regional racing divisions. Las Vegas native Kurt Busch (No. 97 Rubbermaid Ford) starred in the Featherlite Southwest Series from 1997-99 and won that series championship in ' 99. Busch, a race winner at Irwindale in ' 99, says this type of event will provide a great showcase for these drivers.
" I think it ' s overdue. Now, there ' s enough support from all the different series and you ' re going to get a great show, " Busch said. " [Irwindale Speedway] is a perfect race track for what this event is - an All-Star type event. You ' ve got to have a track you can pass on. That track is three lanes wide and it ' s fast. "
Ken Schrader (No. 49 BAM Racing Dodge) follows NASCAR ' s Elite and Grand National divisions more closely than most of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series counterparts - by racing in them. Schrader has competed in both the Featherlite Southwest and Winston West Series on many occasions, collecting eight Winston West and four Featherlite Southwest Series victories over the years.
" It ' s a big opportunity, " Schrader said. " It ' ll be neat, and they can grow it. It ' s kind of like the first Winston or the first Bud Shootout. The first Winston was a big deal and it ' s even more now. They ' ve got an idea and a format that they can definitely grow into something. "
In addition to the chance to show their skills on the race track, NASCAR Busch Series driver Jason Keller (No. 57 Albertsons Ford), a former Kodak Southeast Series competitor, points out the marketing opportunities this event provides for regional teams seeking additional sponsorship support.
" It ' s something great to sell to sponsors, " Keller said. " [Irwindale] is a state-of-the-art facility and that ' s another market that some of the Southeastern guys don ' t ever get to go see, so it ' s going to be good for them. For NASCAR to come together like this, I think it ' s a fantastic marketing tool. "
As Keller mentions, many of the drivers in the Toyota All-Star Showdown will be racing on Irwindale ' s half-mile surface for the first time. Adapting to the track may be a challenge, but NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion crew chief Greg Zipadelli (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet), a former crew chief in the Busch North Series and Featherlite Modified Series, says learning the intricacies of a new track is just part of the game.
" You just try to learn the characteristics of the race track ' how does it change through the night? How does it change through the day? What ' s it like when the sun comes out? Is the place really aggressive on tires? Are there certain particulars, where no matter what division you run in, you ' re always fighting forward bite? ' Certain places we go to, those are pretty big issues. You kind of build your game plan from that. "
Zipadelli, who guided Toyota All-Star Showdown hopeful Mike Stefanik to back-to-back Busch North Series championships in 1997-98, says the Toyota All-Star Showdown is a great chance for NASCAR Winston Cup Series fans to learn about these regional touring drivers for the first time.
" This will be a good opportunity for a lot of people that never saw those series race, to see that there is a bunch of talented people out there - and they ' ll put on a great race, " Zipadelli said. " Hopefully it ' ll grow to be bigger. I know it ' s a pretty big deal. It ' s like us coming to Daytona or going to the Brickyard. It ' s the prestige of going somewhere where you know there ' s just a ton of people that are going to be there watching. "
Team owner Jack Roush, well known for discovering young, up-and-coming drivers, says he will keep an eye on this event and hopes it gives some of the participants some much-needed recognition.
" The more opportunities there are for young people, for people that aren ' t involved in one of the three top series, to run against one another and to attract some attention to their success, the easier it will be for them to find their way into Craftsman Trucks, the Busch Series or to Winston Cup, " Roush said.
In the broadcast booth, long-time NASCAR television personality Mike Joy will call the action for SPEED Channel. Joy, who began his career as a public address announcer on the short tracks of New England, says the Toyota All-Star Showdown will reveal the true passion that these regional drivers have for their sport.
" This is like watching the Final Four or the college football bowls, because not only are those athletes trying to win, they ' re also trying to showcase their skills so they ' ll get noticed and move up to the next level. And that ' s exactly what this Showdown is all about, " Joy said. " I admire the drive and the hunger that these drivers have to move up to a national series. "
Joy says the national television coverage of this event is the perfect opportunity for drivers to attract the attention of the top team owners in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, NASCAR Busch Series or the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
" If I were a car owner, I wouldn ' t wait for the media and the broadcasters to come back and say who did well, " Joy said. " If I ' m a car owner and I ' m looking for rising talent, I ' m going to have to be glued to the set. "